Dialogue With Hoodbhoy: Could Pakistan’s History Have Been Less Calamitous?

Dialogue With Hoodbhoy: Could Pakistan’s History Have Been Less Calamitous?
From one crisis Pakistan has limped to the next; death and dislocation attended its birth from the very inception. Millions died or were uprooted and still more were traumatised emotionally or financially as they crossed the hastily defined border created at the very last minute. A year-long war with India over Kashmir was followed by yet more wars in the decades ahead.

The nation’s founder, MA Jinnah, on whom was conferred the title of Quaid-e-Azam, died within a year of Pakistan’s creation. After him came a succession of civilian rulers who successively failed to stabilise the new country either politically or economically.

In 1958 the military seized power, setting a tradition that would be repeated several times in the nation’s history. In 1971, Pakistan broke in two. The subsequent half century has seen successive failures in governance and economic growth accompanied by a population explosion. In 1998, tensions with India boiled over when both countries exploded nuclear bombs.

Could things have been more normal, less tragic? I had an insightful conversation on this topic with Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy after I reviewed his book, Pakistan: Origins, Identity, and Future, in The Friday Times – NayaDaur. 


Ahmad Faruqui: Why did Jinnah demand the creation of Pakistan on the basis of separating Muslims from Hindus? After all, he had emerged as the ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity in 1925.

Pervez Hoodbhoy: He changed his views soon after the All India Muslim League (AIML) was wiped out in 1937 from the Muslim majority areas of NWFP, Punjab, and Sind. It had bagged barely 5-6% of the Muslim vote there and lost to the Unionist Party which was allied to the secular Congress. To keep the AIML relevant, Jinnah took a frankly communal approach saying Hindus and Muslims would not be able to live together at the end of the British Raj. He argued that Muslims would become a permanent minority in India and that in any democratic setup it would be subject to the tyrannical rule of the Hindu majority. Thereafter his speeches accentuated differences between Muslims and Hindus. They glossed over the fact that large communities had lived together amicably in many places for centuries, or that most Muslims would be either unwilling or unable to move to Pakistan.

I emphasise in my book that although Muslims and Hindus had coexisted peacefully in many parts of India, Muslims rapidly lost out after 1857. This was partly because of their sense of entitlement as former rulers but also because of their low skill levels. The British did accommodate them in high political positions but in the professions – engineers, doctors, administrators, lawyers, and so on – they were very few in numbers. This was due to Muslim conservatism and, notwithstanding Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s heroic efforts, a general reluctance to adapt to the times. Spurning modern education meant that they were left behind in science, mathematics and modern subjects. In contrast, Hindus happily cooperated with the British and so Muslims became collectively weaker as a whole.

Closer to 1947, Jinnah had sought a bigger country than the British granted him. Initially, he rejected it, saying it was “moth-eaten” but eventually accepted the grant. The Pakistan he was given was in two wings separated by a thousand miles of hostile territory. It was a non-starter, an idea born out of emotion and ungrounded in reality. That it crashed 25 years later was unsurprising.

AF: How is it that Jinnah, who lived a totally secular lifestyle, became a champion of creating a country based on the religion of its inhabitants?

PH: Jinnah’s role was akin to that of an attorney who defends his clients’ interests without necessarily sharing their values. According to his biographers he ate ham sandwiches and drank alcohol. He was not fluent in any subcontinental language including Urdu and his own mother tongue, Gujrati. Nor was he known to pray except at public events. I suspect being a nominal Muslim went in his favour because his clients did not want a leader who emphasised one Muslim sect over another. They preferred someone who would merely argue for their rights and privileges without being strictly one of them.

AF: Was there any alternative to Partition?

PH: Let’s remember that unified blocs of Hindus and Muslims did not exist in the middle of the 19th century. In fact Jinnah often complained about Muslims lacking a communal spirit. One option for Muslims was to continue to live side-by-side with Hindus as had been done for millennia. After all, millions of Muslims and Hindus essentially spoke the same language, thought similarly, and had common customs. Further, Hindus and Muslims were split by race, caste, sect and economic status and the communities were therefore very differentiated. Perhaps a broader sense of community did emerge but in that case Muslims could have readily been persuaded to come to terms with reality. After all, a minority cannot hope to rule over the majority. It would have been logical to argue for its due share of power and, meanwhile, increase its bargaining power by emphasizing education and faster adaptation to modernity.

Over time, communal identities were reinforced both by the Hindu Mahasabha and AIML. The 1946 Cabinet Mission Plan did offer a way out of a potentially bitter partition. After extensive consultations with Indian political leaders across the spectrum, the British suggested this Plan but it died because Jinnah and Nehru could not agree on the extent of power sharing. Briefly, the proposed administrative structure for India would have included a Federal Union as the top tier and individual provinces as the bottom tier. The middle tier would have grouped the remaining provinces into the Northwest, the East, and the Remainder. When Congress rejected the Plan, the British government sent Lord Mountbatten as the last viceroy. His obscene rush to divide India unleashed the fury that came with Partition, that which is cogently captured in Stanley Wolpert’s Shameful Flight.

Another option was to create multiple Muslim states as, in fact, had been demanded in the Pakistan Resolution of 25 March 1940. This said that geographically contiguous units demarcated as regions should be constituted, “with such territorial readjustments as may be necessary that the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in a majority as in the North Western and Eastern Zones of (British) India should be grouped to constitute ‘independent states’ in which the constituent units should be autonomous and sovereign.” We also need to remember that there were hundreds of princely states that were not a part of British India and various formulas existed for them to accede. So, in a nutshell, there were alternatives to the kind of partition that actually happened.

AF: Would Pakistan have fared better if Jinnah had lived longer?

PH: I don’t think Jinnah’s living longer would have mattered much. His job was basically over once the flag was raised. Problems had begun to surface even during Jinnah’s lifetime. The Bengalis in East Pakistan refused to accept his demand that they use Urdu as the state language. After the population transfer, Sind and Punjab had begun to differ on many issues. Almost all of Jinnah’s political associates were feudal lords of the Muslim League. They were more eager to grab the lands of fleeing Hindus than learning how to govern properly. Unlike Nehru, Jinnah never talked about land reform. In fact, he could not have because the ML was a thoroughly landlord-dominated party. As for Jinnah’s famous 11 August 1947 speech: it made no sense to his supporters since they believed that Pakistan had been explicitly created in the name of religion and should be an Islamic state, not the secular one his speech hinted at.  Unlike squabbling politicians the army was the only capable, modern institution with internal discipline. This is why we are still under army rule.

AF: Could East Pakistan’s secession in December 1971 have been prevented?

PH: Yes. It required that West Pakistan accept the rule of the majority which, in this case, meant accepting Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman’s Six Point Plan. The results of the general elections of 1970 made Mujib the most popular leader in all of Pakistan’s history and they gave him an absolute majority in the National Assembly. Tragically the election results were annulled and General Yahya, at Bhutto’s behest, launched Operation Searchlight. Earlier, Field Marshal Ayub Khan had charged Shaikh Mujib for treason in the Agartala Conspiracy case.

The rejection of election results is easy to understand. For decades, the people of West Pakistan and the Muslims of North India had looked down upon the Bengalis of East Pakistan as inferior. As I document in my book, the racial bias against Bengalis was firmly embedded in the thinking of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan – the man normally credited with pioneering The Two Nation Theory. He described the Bengalis as cowards and effeminate.

AF: What will become of Imran Khan?

PH: He’s paying the price of having overreached. He thought the army, having brought him into power, would never leave him. But these are the complaints of a jilted lover. Many of his close associates, including former cabinet members, have dumped him and his star has waned. Now that he has a hundred cases of corruption and fraud against him, his energies are likely to be used for simply keeping his head above the water.

AF: Will the story have a happy ending or will Pakistan descend into chaos and anarchy?

PH: This story doesn’t have an ending. The army won’t let provinces break away and will forcibly keep them together no matter what the human cost is. The military and civilian elites will continue to award themselves massive tax-breaks and perks of every sort. Thanks to an IMF loan, default has been staved off for a few months but the threat will linger. The rich will continue to be rich; it’s just that the poor will get a lot poorer. The country will survive – whatever that means.

AF: Why has a good leader not appeared in Pakistan’s history? There are so many capable people in Pakistan.

PH: When a decent, well-qualified person enters the political space, he or she is quickly shown the door. They are seen as dangerous to all those below or above; the present system is based on everything except merit and so is naturally inimical to honest and capable professionals.

AF: Will there be a nationwide revolution, like the French, which will sweep away the ancien regime?

PH: I neither see it coming nor hope for a revolution. Any revolution that comes our way will be closer to the Taliban variety – or perhaps inspired by the TLP.  It certainly will not be for liberty, fraternity, equality or for the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. In the absence of a political movement that can change the general mindset, the best we can hope for is more of the present.

Dr. Faruqui is a history buff and the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan, Routledge Revivals, 2020. He tweets at @ahmadfaruqui